Exhibition Review: Subversive Design

Written by Sandeep Sodhi

Date of publication: March 14 2022

Place: NRW Forum in Düsseldorf, Germany
Date of the exhibition: From February 11 until May 22 2022

View when entering the exhibition space

Interactive, humorous, and rather democratic – if one had to describe the exhibition subversive design, shown at the NRW Forum in Düsseldorf, Germany, these days, the three words listed above would probably be good indicators for the paths the exhibition tries to take.

The exhibition curated by Alain Bieber and Judith Winterhager – both curators working at the NRW Forum, a german institution specialized in internet culture and new media art (I do not really like this term since it is so categoric) – embraces a strategic examination of contemporary capitalist consumer culture through objects that work in a tactical manner. When going back to the early 1990s one could probably speak of tactical media and a form of opposition that serves the cause of uncovering hierarchies and oppressing power structures in our social and economic system. What once was the tactical in the context of 1990s media activists becomes a process of objectified subversion in the environment of the institution. But what does subversion mean? Subversion is a form of subtle protest, a contradiction, something that tries to undermine existing structures in order to uncover and create a change. The topic of the exhibition is thus rather socio-critical and anti-capitalist, yet while visiting the space, there is a certain familiarity that mitigates the overwhelming and crushing traits of such political debates.

Why is that? The answer is simple: IKEA! We have all been to the Swedish ready-to-assemble furniture warehouse, especially the part, where you pick up the products by searching the appropriate code for the stuff you want to buy. The warehouse character held in white, yellow, and blue is what gives this exhibition such a soothing and comforting atmosphere, not because we all like warehouses but rather because it evokes something very familiar, something quotidian, that has become an essential part of our daily lives: The feeling of being a consumer. We are all consumers, and the exhibition reminds us of exactly this matter of fact. The exhibition space is deconstructing the concept of the classic white cube by appropriating the structure of a warehouse. As a visitor, you stroll from aisle to aisle in search of works and content. The products, which would usually decorate the cold shopping shelves are replaced by art and design objects. The objects on the other hand are surrounded and accompanied by cardboard boxes – probably to intensify the warehouse character.

Classic IKEA warehouse
Exhibition space, subversives design © NRW Forum Düsseldorf, Photograph: Katja Illner

When entering the exhibition space, you are welcomed by a moving robot that carries the famous Balenciaga Crocs re-designed by Demna Gvasalia. The work of the Georgian-born designer and curator is presented through a second object: the Balenciaga interpretation of the infamous IKEA Frakta bag. What is interesting regarding the selection of Gvasalias works for the exhibition is not the subversive character of the objects, but rather the notion that codes have become something that replaces physical materialistic value. The Crocs and the IKEA bag are nothing other than supports for a code circulating in a closed-circuit system. So, if Balenciaga has become the code carrying the actual value, then what are the objects? They are nothing more than the physical representation of this code. Does this sound or seem familiar? Yes, you are right, Duchamps is the keyword we are looking for here. Demna Gvasalia appropriates the ideas of Marcel Duchamps in a very smart way by designing fashion following the principles of the readymade. In summary, Richard Mutt becomes Balenciaga, and the fountain (urinal) is turned into a bag or a pair of Crocs.

Urinal “readymade” signed R. Mutt.  Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, 1917
Exhibition subversive design, Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga: Carry Shopper © NRW Forum Düsseldorf, Photograph: Katja Illner

The logic of the readymade is a fundamental component of the modus operandi of some of the artists and designers displayed in the exhibition. Henry Alexander Levy, for instance, works in the exact same manner. With the creation of his fashion brand, enfants riches déprimés he has produced a code that represents a lifestyle based on stereotypes. The appropriation of subcultural elements is transformed into a mashup of the already existing. Again, it is not the objects that matter here but rather the narratives that the brand conveys. The objects thus become code carriers, empty shells that transmit but one sole message: enfants riches déprimés. Both the works of Demna Gvasalia and Henry Alexander Levy have little or nothing to do with the idea of subversion. They much rather uncover and capitalize on the way our consumer society functions in the digital age, where the circulation of information and codes is of more value than the objects carrying these codes.

When leaving the works of Demna Gvasalia and Henry Alexander Levy and moving further through the aisles of the exhibition one stumbles upon works by Next Nature Network, Jojo Gronostay, or Patricia Thoma – to name just a few. The concept of subversion plays a key role in the artistic practice of these artists and designers. The works of Next Nature Network, for instance, are insofar interesting, because they are tackling urgent environmental and sociopolitical issues of our society through a process of reversion. One of their projects shown in the exhibition goes under the name Rayfish Footwear. The project functions via a fictional fashion brand that creates personalized sneakers made of genetically modified leather. The aim of the project is to renegotiate our relationship with animals and to introduce the possibilities of new biotechnological methods. Works such as Rayfish Footwear follow a posthumanist approach that creates alternative visions of a better future. The artist Patricia Thoma, on the other hand, takes a different approach. Thoma focuses on recycling processes by transforming plastic bags into fashion. With her work german garbage dress, Lidl, she creates an object of protest, something that questions the fashion industry and our consumer society.

Exhibition subversive design, Patricia Thoma: Deutsches Müllkleid Lidl © NRW Forum Düsseldorf, Photograph: Katja Illner

The exhibition gathers various objects and not all of them follow the logic of subversion. What is interesting at this point is the contradiction between subversive objects like german garbage dress, Lidl, and objects, that capitalize on the way information circulates in the digital age – I am obviously thinking of the Balenciaga Crocs. This conflict reveals the mechanisms of our contemporary consumer society, in which social media and code-circulation is an essential factor for artistic and economic success. In this way, the exhibition does not only address subversive design but also the way consumerism has changed in the age of the digital.

Consumer critique through art is nothing new – one might think of the protagonists of the pop art movement or exhibitions like Leben mit Pop – Eine Demonstration für den kapitalistischen Realismus. The exhibition organized by the artists Gerd Richter and Konrad Lueg in 1963 took place in a furniture store. The shopping character of the store and its products were an essential part of the exhibition. Richter and Lueg placed the furniture on pedestals and transformed them into exhibition objects, thus turning the store into a gallery or museum.

The exhibition subversive design at the NRW Forum reverses this idea by bringing the warehouse or store to the museum. It is this approach that makes this exhibition so interesting. At the same time, one must say, that it does not manage to totally free itself from the norms of the classic art institution. Throughout the visit, the overwhelming presence of the white cube unfailingly reminds us, that this is a museum and not an actual warehouse. Not even the cheerful background music accompanying one during the visit helps change this circumstance.

Nonetheless, the curators of the exhibition introduce perspectives and ways, that help deconstruct the notion of the art institution. Subversive design does not only gather objects from different fields in an interdisciplinary setting but does actually try to question the way curating works. Some of the objects shown in the exhibition were selected through the platform nextmuseum.io – a project that understands the museum as a social and interactive structure and wants to revolutionize curating by introducing democratic principles to art institutions. With the cooperation between nextmuseum.io and the exhibition, the very idea of what a curator is and does is being deconstructed. Our notion of curating is tied to the principles and hierarchies established during modernity. The introduction of a virtual community that decides which works are to be exhibited undermines this understanding and builds on the radical concepts and ideas of early 1990s net artists and activists. In the context of nextmuseum.io and the exhibition, the internet becomes a means to change curatorial practices, and in doing so, the exhibition in itself becomes an object of subversion.

About the author:
Sandeep Sodhi holds a Master’s degree in art history from the University of Cologne, Germany. He works as a writer and curator and is currently preparing a Ph.D. thesis on technology-based artist networks. His research interests lie in new media art, interdisciplinary approaches, art and politics, and technology.